Workplace Dress Codes: Equality and the Law

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office clothesCan an employer tell you what to wear?

When Nicola Thorp was recently sent home from work, it was because of her refusal to comply with a company’s dress code request. She was asked to wear shoes with heels between 2 inches and 4 inches in height, and was sent home when she refused to do so.

Following her experience, Thorp created an online petition to ‘make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work’. By late June, the petition had amassed almost 150,000 signatures and had received a Government response:

 “Company dress codes must be reasonable and must make equivalent requirements for men and women. This is the law…”

So, what exactly can employers ask of their workers?

The law about workplace dress codes

 Employers can make ‘reasonable’ dress code demands. They must give their employees time to meet those demands, but can dismiss members of staff that don’t follow workplace dress codes.

Do men and women have to follow the same dress codes?

Nicola Thorp claims to have asked her employer if they required men to wear high heels, and said that she was laughed at for the suggestion.

According to the law, however, dress codes can be different for men and women. They must be ‘equivalent’, which means that you can’t expect women to wear formal black shoes whilst you allow men to work in their trainers, but that men and women don’t need to have exactly the same workplace dress code.

What is classed as a reasonable dress code?

In hospitals and other medical environments, employees can be asked not to wear jewellery below the elbow. This means that they can be asked not to wear watches or bracelets and will even have to take off their wedding rings. The same might apply to factory workers, dealing with potentially dangerous machinery.

Often, employees will be given a workplace uniform. This, in itself, is a dress code.

Workers might be asked to tie their hair back and wear a hat if they work in food preparation.

A workplace dress code might be considered reasonable because it helps customers to identify members of staff, or because it improves health and safety. Dress codes cannot be restrictive just because an employer doesn’t like a certain style.

Office dress codes

 It is often the case that employees in offices don’t come into contact with customers.

Despite this, office dress codes often demand ‘smart casual’ wear. Employees would be asked not to turn up to work in jogging pants and baseball caps, or t-shirts with offensive slogans or overly noticeable designs.

The typical office dress code is considered to be reasonable, as long as it applies to both men and women equally. It should be non-discriminatory and fair.

Dress codes and disabilities

Reasonable adjustments must be made for people with disabilities. This applies to dress codes, which can be altered to help employees who, for example, may be unable to wear shoes or might have sensory issues surrounding certain textures. The adjustments required will be different for each individual. Employer and employee should work together to find an appropriate solution.

How can an employer protect themselves when creating a workplace dress code?

As you create a dress code, think carefully about what you’re asking. Why is the dress code required?

You should have a good reason for anything that you ask of your employees. For safety reasons or to create a good image, you may want to make it clear that slippers are not appropriate workplace footwear. You can’t so easily argue that black high heels are essential, whilst black flat shoes are not appropriate.

By consulting with employees and gathering their opinions, you increase your chance of creating a policy that everyone considers to be fair. The consulting process does not require you to give in to majority demand for salespeople to be allowed to wear football shirts, but you may find that employees come up with some very reasonable requests. They may raise dress code issues that you hadn’t previously considered.

All employees need to be made aware of the dress code once it’s been created. You should give workers a reasonable amount of time to prepare for any changes. Bear in mind that your requests shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive.

Whilst going out and purchasing a new pair of trousers might seem like a relatively quick and affordable request, it is important to remember that some employees might struggle to find the time or money. If you’ve allowed jeans and t-shirts in the past, bear in mind that some employees might struggle to afford a few shirts. Don’t expect people to arrive the next day adhering to the new workplace dress code. It’s fair to give people at least one full week (including weekend) to purchase the things that they’ll need. You might also want to offer extra help to those that will struggle with the cost, perhaps by offering a small wage advance to cover the immediate expense.

What about tattoos, piercings and hair?

Tattoos and piercings come under the same rules as other workplace dress codes. This means that an employer can request that they’re covered or removed, with a valid business reason for doing so. The employer would need to justify their decision and include it within a written policy.

Employees often mention hair, and facial hair, within their dress code policies. They might require hair to be a natural colour, or might specifically mention hair (or facial hair) styles. This, again, is allowed as long as it isn’t discriminatory. Men and women must be treated equally, but don’t need to be subject to the exact same rules.

Is religious dress exempt from a dress code at work?

Employers need to ensure that they can justify their reasons for banning types of religious dress in the workplace. Furthermore, each type of religious dress would need to be banned individually and not as part of a blanket ban on all types of religious clothing.

An employer might not have a valid reason for banning the niqab in an office environment, but might be justified in banning a religious necklaces if all necklaces are banned from the workplace for health and safety reasons.

An employee can’t wear a necklace against the existing dress rules of a company, simply because it features a religious symbol. On the other hand, it would be unfair and unreasonable for an employee to allow necklaces but to ban religious jewellery, without a valid business reason for doing so.

Some religions have their own requirements regarding hair or facial hair. An employee could file for discrimination if they were treated negatively for having a beard or long hair, for example, when it is a requirement of their religion.

Put simply, unless religious dress would affect an employee’s ability to do their job, it should be allowed. Your employee might be willing to select the colour of their religious clothing, to fit with company uniform, so this could be a useful compromise to consider.

Dress codes on special occasions

Employees will need to ask their employers if they’d like to make an exception to the dress code for a specific day, event or occasion. Employers might allow people to wear Christmas jumpers on the last day of work, or to wear their pyjamas for charity fundraising.

Employers can also implement different dress codes on different days, as long as this information is effectively communicated. ‘Dress down Friday’ is a popular one with workers!

Dress codes are often essential. When they’re not essential for health and safety, they can still be of benefit to the business. The important thing, whatever dress code you put in place, is that it’s reasonable and non-discriminatory.

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